Tracking adult life in the ’50s, ’60s and ’80s
A POINT OF AWARENESS - Preciosa S. Soliven () - October 19, 2006 - 12:00am
(Part 2 of a series on 2nd Adulthood)
Gail Sheehy continues her series on the New Map of Adult Life with the 14 books she has written. It was her book, Passages, which made her famous overnight in 1988. Revised as The Silent Passage and then later as New Passages, it encompassed the complete map of adult life enumerating the stages as follows: Tryout 20s, Turbulent 30s, Flourishing 40s, Flaming 50s, Serene 60s, Sage 70s, Uninhibited 80s, Nobility of 90s and Celebratory Centenarians. Two more detailed books followed: one for men (Understanding Men’s Passages - Discovering the new map of man’s life) and another for women (Sex and the Seasoned Woman - Pursuing the Passionate Life).

This emotional tour guide "clearly states ideas about life that have never before been as clearly stated." She says that the years of late Second Adulthood from 65 to 85 or beyond provides the chance for wholeness, as opposed to the dividedness of so much during earlier life. This passage should give us a sense of unity in our values and purposes. Contentment comes from what Emerson called "the sacredness of private integrity".

Life’s opportunities expand in proportion to our courage to seek them out. If we are still growing, not retreating into self-pity or depression, the heart expands, love finds many avenues, and we enjoy being loved for who we have become as a person. This can be a period of grace and generosity.
Flaming fifties for men
Years before the sixties is a significant crossroad for men. It is not clear whether theirs is a passage to the Flaming Fifties or to flameout. Women, on the other hand, have a biologically timed menopause that forces them to acknowledge they are changing. Men do not have to face aging, at least not as early as women do.

Most pour out tremendous energy and often dangerously suppress their emotional needs. Yet even as his emotional life is becoming more important to him, his surly teenage children are probably rebelling, his older children are leaving home for good, and his wife is becoming more assertive. If his wife is roughly the same age, she is likely to be in menopausal mood swings or soaring with postponed ambitions paying less attention to him than getting involved with church work.

By this time, he is not easily filled up merely by engaging in the competitive struggle. His body doesn’t work quite the way it did. His job may not be as secure as he thought it would be. Even the most successful men feel some ebbing in the thrill of the chase. What most men want to do at 50 is to stay where they are. They do not want to make a passage.
The Samson complex
With all these fears and losses on their minds as men approach the passage to the Age of Mastery, what do they worry about first? Losing hair – as if hair were what Samson believed it to be: the symbol of a man’s power and sexual prowess.

A 59-year old salesman explained, "I am really proud to be my age. If I wanted to, I could train right now and run a mini-marathon. But, I hate my hair! I can look really great indoors. But, once I go outside and it’s windy, my hair flies up and all the bare spots show. It’s humiliating."

An executive narrated, "My wife consoles me and insists that she is turned on by balding man. So, I explain to my 15-year old son – this is really a solar panel for my sex machine."
The aging athlete
The struggle over relinquishing physical dominance is, for men, as fierce and painful as the struggle over surrendering their youthful beauty is for women.

A 50-year old athlete recounts, "I’ve been an athlete all my life. I knew I was getting old when my boys would play basketball, but they wouldn’t ask Dad anymore. Now I get, ‘Would you like to coach, Dad?’ Not ‘would you like to play, Dad?’

"One time, a 20-year old kid was checking me real hard in the backcourt. I was then 20 pounds heavier than people my height should be. So, I pushed him away somewhat aggressively. I said, ‘C’mon, I’m old enough to be your dad.’ The young man replied, ‘Then get off the court,’" the athlete continued. After these incidents, he mellowed and realized that he didn’t have to prove himself in physical contests anymore. This freed him to try other forms of expression he had never entertained before such as art, music, gardening, and gourmet cooking, which were a lot easier on the knees.

The psychic compensation is greater for women because they started with so much less. Men already had good jobs and greater authority in the family. To make a passage to the "Age of Mastery often means for men giving up being the master".
Selective sixties
For the vast majority of men and women today, the sixties are a stage where a maximum freedom of choice coexists with a minimum of physical limitations. This is the age when both your mind and body are still working, at the same time you have the benefit of a mature perspective on life. Nobody can dictate to you anymore, nor can you avoid taking responsibility for your own life.

There is a new freedom for playfulness. At this stage, you have permission to select out those people and things that are truly important to you and say "no" to others.

With retirement, there is a heightened potential for making another leap of growth, but also the danger of lapsing into depression. Late-life learning is a new possibility and a priority for those who want to remain vigorous of mind. Selecting the most meaningful voluntary activities can keep you engaged, and "engagement is essential to successful aging".
Spontaneous seventies
These years beyond getting and spending and status seeking offer the chance to become a "pilgrim of the soul". The ultimate task of self-mastery is to develop an appreciation for the complexity of life, to control first impulses and resist taking sides in conflict, as well as to be a wise mediator in the paradoxes of life. The seventies should be able to view the world with amused detachment to allow greater spontaneity and gaiety. But, life from here on also becomes an endurance event. A clear choice must be made to continue to grow, intellectually and spiritually, and to counter the drift toward passivity with disciplined daily physical activity before reaching the age of seventies. Otherwise, the body will gradually decay.

Erikson regards this final stage of adult development as a struggle between integrity and despair. Integrity, he suggested, is a state of mind assured of order and meaning as well as the serenity to bless and defend one’s own life history. This passage emphasizes the importance of "cultivation" – the agricultural term for refreshing the soil to improve its condition. There are many ways to turn over the soil, in which we can continue to grow, to fertilize ourselves with new friends and activities, as well as to weed out the habits or negative people who might choke off our perennial blooms.

Being a grandparent is one of the most valued and treasured roles that we can perform from the seventies onward. We bring to the table not only toys and surprises, easy laughter and unqualified love. We become the polestars that will guide our children long after we have departed.
Enduring eighties, noble nineties and the ascent to centenarian
People who enjoy strong connections with others live longer. Widows who maintain friendships with others, and who reach out to form new relationships in later life, are healthier in mind and body. It is also a fact that the vast majority of centenarians retain close ties to their families.

Courage and stoicism in the face of inevitable assaults on the body and the after effects of medical treatment seem to fortify inner strength. To be among the successfully long-lived, we must have cultivated some specific purpose or joy "to wake up for, a reason to fight another day, and appetite for seeing another sunset."
Vision to look 5 to 10 years ahead Gail Sheehy received several praises for her work:

"An optimistic analysis of adult development in pessimistic times... It is grounded in the economic and psychological realities that make adult life so complex today." – The New York Times Book Review

"New Passages has a lot to interest the reader who wants to know how to live the rest of a life that may last much longer than in the past and that they may have to be lived with fewer economic resources." – The Houston Chronicle

"A good book on the psychological and physical journey of aging... Sheehy has done her homework... She conducted extensive surveys of professional and working-class Americans, developed statistical profiles of age groups with the US Census Bureau, and consulted with top-notch researchers." – The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Sheehy is a top-notch reporter... She does a service with what she herself would call ‘pioneer’ work in late adult development, a largely unexplored terrain." – The Boston Globe

The readers of this column will be among the millions of readers of Gail Sheehy’s landmark bestseller Passages. Eighteen years ago, she set out to write a sequel, but instead she discovered a historic revolution in the adult life cycle. Thanks to this lady writer, now we can have the vision to look five to ten years ahead of our own steps and redefine our lives in our second adulthood.

(Next week: Part 3 of a series on Survey of Your Life History)

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